While there have been certainly plenty of discussions over the years regarding Bert and Ernie’s relationship on Sesame Street, there have also not been too many people willing to explicitly define it one way or another. Are they lovers, or are they just really close friends who live together? That’s been somewhat nebulous and on the show, and it’s really been intended as such. The characters are used as a teaching tool, so trying to define the characters in a way that could be polarizing for viewers (especially at a time in which LGBTQ relationships were not entirely accepted) could be a controversial thing to do from a business point of view.
Mark Saltzman no longer writes for Sesame Street, but he did have a role there for many years and wrote a number of iconic pieces for the show. He also spent a long time with the Bert and Ernie characters. Speaking in an interview with Queerty, Saltzman discussed his viewpoint on the characters, including how he saw the relationship between the two as a reflection of the relationship between himself and his late partner Arnold Glassman:
“I remember one time that a column from the San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked, ‘Are Bert and Ernie lovers?’ And that, coming from a preschooler was fun. And that got passed around, and everyone had their chuckle and went back to it. And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert and Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie and I as Bert and Ernie.”
Saltzman goes on to explain how he would use many of the traits of himself and Glassman in some of the pieces featuring the characters, and just hearing this alone may have helped a long way for the normalization of same-sex couples in society.
We are still not in an era where LGBTQ relationships are universally accepted, so it’s an admittedly risky public stance for him to make. Yet, there are some things to remember here. For one, Saltzman is speaking about these characters through his own specific lens. Meanwhile, he is not speaking for Sesame Workshop, the company behind the series. Bert and Ernie existed before Saltzman wrote for them, so it is a bit misleading to say that his comments confirm that Bert and Ernie are meant to be a gay couple on the series. At the same time, his experiences are not to be trivialized and they add a new sense of wonder and meaning to the characters for those who choose to view them that way.
In a statement seven years ago, Sesame Workshop had the following to say about the characters’ orientation:
Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves.
Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.
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